Finding Music In Science

Westwood News

Sitting in front of his keyboard and computer screen, Michael Robinson searches for the right words to explain just how he does what he does.

"I used to write for traditional instrumentalists, but felt the need to leave that behind," he said. "It was as though the live performers were getting in the way of the music."

He acknowledges that some find this viewpoint controversial.

"People come to a concert and expect to see musicians," he said. "I feel like that is no longer a really relevant way of making music for myself. The challenge for myself is to compose computer/synthesizer music that comes to life at the time of the performance using the advantages and limitations of the medium."

This juxtaposition of traditional versus new thought is evident both in Robinson's approach and his choice of venues. He has performed concerts around the country, but when he plays Westwood it's usually in a church, that most traditional of musical settings. How does he marry the two?

"One nice thing about churches is that they have beautiful acoustics," he explained. "I can fill up and saturate the hall with sound."

And quite a variety of sounds, indeed. Working with a Roland sound module, which is about the size and shape of an average VCR, but with dozens of buttons and flashing lights, Robinson pulls together instruments and sounds from around the globe to create complex, layered music.

"I like to have variety in the music I compose," Robinson noted. "This instrument allows me the capability of playing instruments from around the world, with other types of scale tunings - it puts new colors at my disposal."

Other music cultures use tunings far different from Western tuning, and focus entirely on melody and rhythm rather than harmony, he said.

"The Korean oboe sounds like something from another planet," Robinson said. "And the Near Eastern violin has a grainy consistency in its sound."

The creation of these sounds is fascinating to watch. Were the speakers to be turned off, it would look like Robinson was ard at work data-processing, typing away at a keyboard in front of a black-and-white computer monitor. Yet as he types, sound pours forth from speakers in a dazzling array of sounds and audio textures.

In Giant Leaves, a composition on his new release Hamoa, the music has repeating themes at its base with different instrumental sounds layered over it, delivering a focus on melody rather than chords. The final effect is that of not so much a building and falling of music but a flow, odd but not discordant.

The composer finds that there is a tendency for Western musicians and audiences to look down upon music that focuses on pure melody and rhythm without harmony as not being complicated enough and lacking in variety. For some this way of making music will be a developed taste with its own endless source of complexity and variety. "I like to create something that is just a melody, but is substantial enough to listen to for a long time," he continued. "It's simple, and there's no place to hide - I like that challenge."

Robinson will be performing at UCLA's University Lutheran Chapel on February 25 at 8 p.m.

- Joe Morris, 1995


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).